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Robert Arlinghaus with a sea trout he caught off the Danish coast

Christian Skov

Q&A: Why fishery managers need to overhaul recreational fishing rules

For environmental conflict and political drama, it’s hard to beat fishing. Almost all the fish consumed by developed countries comes from industrial fisheries, which generate not just a lot of revenue, but controversy over their impact, such as accidentally harming seabirds or scraping the sea floor. Meanwhile, recreational fishing usually escapes notice. Although it also has a large impact, both environmental and economic, amateur fishing is often ignored by regulators or swept under the same kind of rules as commercial fishing. This needs to change, researchers argue in a commentary published online yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Each year, recreational anglers catch an estimated 47 billion fish. About half are let go, but there can be a sizable impact on fish stocks. Populations can be depleted in small lakes, for example. Intense fishing can cause fish to evolve to smaller sizes and adopt new behaviors. And some management practices designed to please freshwater anglers, such as the release of popular but nonnative species, can harm biodiversity. Off the coast, saltwater anglers are sometimes chasing the same fish as commercial boats, leading to conflicts between the two groups.

Researchers have been thinking about how to improve management of recreational fisheries and reduce conflicts, and a group of experts offers recommendations in the PNAS article. ScienceInsider spoke with one of the lead authors, biologist Robert Arlinghaus of Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin. Arlinghaus is also an avid angler. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Can you describe the appeal of recreational fishing?

A: I’ve been fishing since I was a child. For many nonanglers, this comes across as the most boring activity you can imagine. But there’s nothing else that really taps into all of the senses, the environment, smelling the water, seeing the birds, and being with your buddies in a challenging environment on a boat. It has to do with the unknown—you don’t know whether you’ll catch a fish. It’s kind of the ultimate experience, with the benefit of bringing home sustainable seafood. I know so many people who can’t think about life without angling.

Q: What’s changing in recreational fisheries?

A: Some fisheries are experiencing increasing pressure while stocks decline, and therefore conflicts are escalating, for example in the Baltic cod fisheries. In Germany, there’s a lot of rebellion. Anglers are organizing themselves, they’re fighting policymakers that recently implemented daily limits for cod. They want to maintain unregulated access to the resource and they feel unfairly treated. There’s also increasing conflicts in freshwater areas. We see currently a lot of movement from nature conservation agencies and the associated NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] to designate conservation areas and then ban or severely constrain recreational fishing. And this creates a lot of anger and local and regional debate.

Q: Why is it more challenging to manage a recreational fishery?

A: First of all, it’s the sheer number of people who aren’t very organized. And they differ in their objectives, preferences, and therefore behavior. A sizable fraction of anglers really enjoy having fish for dinner, so they seek opportunities for a good catch, and let’s say liberal harvest regulations. And then there are trophy anglers, maybe who don’t eat any fish and release them instead. But they seek trophies and they don’t mind traveling far, to places where fish have good growth and little mortality. We really have to account for the diversity of preferences.

Q: So what should be done?

A: The first step is explicitly considering recreational fisheries. Often, a management agency just looks at commercial goals and objectives, and that’s not necessarily the best target for recreational resources. There are solutions. We can explicitly manage for diversity in, let’s say, the freshwater landscape where we have many different lakes. But in Germany, for example, we have a one-size-fits-all harvest policy in state law. That is superimposed on all lakes no matter what productivity they have and which type of angler you have locally.

Q: What does it mean to manage a fishery for diversity?

A: To really think about the different experiences that you want produce. On a family outing with your children, you want them to catch a few fish easily. Then you have the specialized high-avidity anglers. They have no problem spending weeks in the year waiting for one bite from, say, a trophy carp. The harder the challenge, the greater the achievement, and for some anglers that’s the perfect fishing experience. In a landscape with many lakes, you could have a set of lakes for the harvest-oriented people and a set of lakes for the families and a set of lakes for trophy fishing. If you manage fisheries cleverly, you can create outcomes with happy people and limited overfishing.

Q: Do fishing associations already do this, or do you see a need for action by governments or authorities?

A: Some angling clubs in central Europe do that diversified management. But they could benefit from more strategic advice, because it’s often done from a gut feeling. In the U.S., as an extreme example, you have public agencies overseeing a whole state and anglers are basically unorganized and buy an annual license for the whole state. They do have special regulation waters, but again these are often done in an ad hoc fashion, based on political pressure. They may not systematically evaluate what it means if you change the regulation of one lake, what that means for the other lakes around them, because the angler effort will shift.

Q: Do you have a success story of an effective angler organization?

A: I like the central European approach. Basically, for freshwater systems the fishing rights are given to angler organizations, but also the duty to keep these lakes in good shape. And so that creates a perfect incentive structure. We have studied such systems very intensively in Germany. We were amazed how much voluntary input people give, how much money they invest for resource management and for all sorts of things. They really, really care and they invest heavily in local compliance and enforcement—something that is extremely hard to accomplish in marine fisheries, where you have open systems and everybody kind of battles for the same fish. So creating some form of property rights can foster a lot of good incentives.

Q: Could that management system work in other places?

A: It certainly has limitations under certain property rights regimes. My colleagues in the U.S. say this model of complete devolution of rights to the local scale—not only catches, but also management—is unthinkable because of the public trust doctrine and allowing free access to everybody. Yet there are intermediate systems. For example, in Wisconsin, lake associations care for local water bodies. You have similar systems like this in Canada in some provinces. And it would simply be a matter of public agencies giving associations a bit more rights and involving them more than they could have the same outcome as you have in central Europe.

Q: Any downsides to private management of lake fishing?

A: The negative side is certainly that access is restricted and local managers might be too active. Take the example of stocking lakes with extra fish. Some managers try to support their fisheries by buying young fish from all sorts of catchments and they mix populations. Stocking can harm biodiversity. You can have issues with spread of nonnative species and so on; that is a risk and it’s not well addressed under such a system.

Q: What about coastal fishing?

A: In the marine environment it’s more difficult for sure. Particularly because the fish move around and aren’t confined to lakes. And there are more stocks that are in trouble—exploited, for example, by both commercial and recreational fisheries. For these, I think other policy changes are needed to get the incentives right. They should move away from simply setting out an annual license that an individual can buy—and then get basically unlimited access to that fishery—to a system of issuing harvest tags. So, like wildlife management, you buy the right to keep a fish. And these tags are given out in limited numbers commensurate with a biological state of the resource. I think the system would be very good for stocks with a great deal of conflict, such as red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, the Baltic cod fishery, or the bluefin tuna fishery in the Mediterranean.

Q: What does the harvest tag system require?

A: You have to have a system in place to monitor the catch. But with technology, smartphone apps and so on, this could be done. Obviously, anglers don’t like to be regulated; for the most part, they don’t like to be monitored either. So this really can create a lot of conflict. And one has to seriously consider the distributional aspects; these tags should not be so expensive that poorer people don’t have access. So maybe a certain number could be released by lotteries or some other way that is fair to all. 

Q: Can science help?

A: Harvest tags are a great idea, but this needs to be tested with bio-economic models to really look at how people and the entire fishery respond to different policy options. And how do you allocate different regulations in space? How do anglers respond to those changes, where do they go? How do you decide what to do where and what type of sampling to assess the status? If you’re dealing with thousands of lakes it’s financially impossible to do regular monitoring. And there are many biological questions. How do different fish respond to catch and release? Do they die?

Q: What questions do you find most intriguing?

A: I’m intrigued by a hypothesis we put out recently called fisheries-induced timidity. The idea is that in recreational fishing, the fish decides whether it takes the bait or not. We have some experimental evidence now that fish become more timid, less eager to take the bait. And that is really important to know, because the catch rates will go down—even if the abundance of fish is not declining, and anglers will be very unhappy. And also important is that our ability to assess fish stocks also declines.

Q: Your paper talks about “optimizing angler well-being.” What’s an ideal fishing experience for you?

A: If I go fishing with my son, who’s 6 years old, it’s high catch rates and being home in 2 hours. If I go with my buddies, the ideal fishing trip is being alone, beautiful scenery, and the chance of catching a big fish. In that sense, it’s more a trophy experience that I like, in nature and away from it all.